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Medicinal Plants - Part 1: The Plantago

Rathwulven BC

Extremely Talkative
Hi folks, I would wish to share the first of a series of articles I have been publishing for "Dutch Wildcamping Tumblr" - this series deals with medicinal plants on a more botanic and scientific scale and occasionally aims at tackling some common misconceptions of certain varieties. Without further ado:



Spread across all continents and adapted to basically any sort of climate grows the plant genus of plantago. There are some 200 subordinate and identified species to plantago, also known as plantains in English. You might have heard of species such as the fireweed (plantago media) or the desert indianwheat/fleawort (plantago ovata) for example. All subordinate species to the genus of plantago are edible and serve as an (emergency) source for nutrients. Also, the plantago have certain curative attributes we will take a closer look at in the following article.


  • part of the family of plantaginaceae
  • leaves growing from a rosette close to the ground; leaves are lance- or egg-shaped in appearance depending on the species
  • very distinct leaf veins stretching across the whole leaf parallel to the leaf margins
  • flowers compose a more or less distinct cob emerging from the center of the leaf-rosette
  • flower stems measure about 10cm to 35cm, yet can reach up to 50cm or more depending on location and species
  • during the vegetational period in spring and early summer, flowers usually feature coronas of white or yellow stamens on the bottom of the flower-cob
  • flowering period: spring to summer
  • seeds developing throughout mid-summer until autumn
  • seeds usually will remain attached to the flower-cob throughout autumn and winter
  • short, creeping rhizomes


Due to the myriad subordinate species of the plantago one might realize plenty of variations in characteristics of different phenotypes: Even though all plantago can be identified by the characteristics mentioned above, make sure you are checking the plant for every single feature of those mentioned above. Whereas the plantago major (also known as lamb’s foot) features large, elongated flower-cobs, the plantago lanceolata (also known as buckhorn) grows small, thick and compact cobs. Taking a close look at the latin name of the buckhorn, one realizes that ‘lanceolata’ already indicates its distinct lance-shaped, thin leaves. Compared to these, the leaves of the plantago major appear short, broad and egg-shaped. In order to make sure that you are dealing with a specimen of the plantago, always check for leaf veins stretching from the bottom of the leaf to its pointy end, running in parallel lines to the leaf margins! All plantago feature this distinct characteristic - so discard any sort of plant that reminds you of the plantago, yet does not feature leaves of this sort of appearance. For comparison, see the pictures above and below. On the left side of the top picture, you will find both a photograph as well as an illustration of plantago major. On the right side you will find both a photograph as well as an illustration of plantago lanceolata. Below you can see the distinct, parallel leaf veins typical for the plantago.



Plantago are subordinate to the family of plantaginaceae. This family also contains the genus of digitalis (or foxgloves) which are poisonous! Consumption of the latter can result in severe health problems or even death, so make sure you are neither collecting nor consuming any species belonging to the digitalis!


Digitalis can easily be recognized by their thimble-like flowers usually appearing in very vivid and bright colors: If a plant features all characteristics of the plantago but also clusters of fully grown, ‘real’ flowers instead of cobs reminding you more or less of crop - do not touch the plant or discard it if already touched, consequently washing your hands as soon as possible. Beware that digitalis appear with almost any sort of colour-combination, yet do not feature the crop-cob-like flower heads containing grain-like seeds!


It is to say that if you are not completely sure whether you identified a plant properly, always avoid using/consuming this plant due to possible mistaking with toxic plants. Despite all efforts made to identify a certain plant, staying safe and healthy always goes above experimenting with unknown species!
Image below: Flowers of the plantago maritima for comparison to the flowers of digitalis featured above.



All plantago are edible and can help you in either creating a proper outdoor-meal or serving as a source of nutrients in emergency situations. Due to their crop-like-development, plantago provide rangers and bushcrafters with seeds that can be cooked, smashed to pulp/mush or even eaten raw. Their taste is comparable to the taste of button mushrooms. In order to harvest plantago-seeds and peel of their spelt, just take a jar, sit in the wind and rub the plantago-flowers in between your fingers, right above your jar. The wind will carry away all light-weight plant materials whereas the seeds will drop back into your jar, ready to be processed.


The leaves of the plantago are also edible and can be eaten either raw as some sort of wild salad or cooked just like spinach. Beware that only young leaves are tasty: The older the leaves of the plantago grow, the more bitter compounds they produce and store and the more unenjoyable they get. Two to three bitter leaves can already ruin the taste of a whole pot of (cooked) plantago. Rather old age is usually indicated by yellow to brownish discolorations visible at the leaf tips.



Ancient Greeks and Romans already took advantage of the plantago in myriad ways and still today the Germans call these plants ’des Wanderers bester Freund’, translating as ‘the wayfarer’s best friend’. The reason for this incredible popularity among different cultures and throughout millennia of human history has a simple reason: It can help in almost any situation of sickness or injury, earning it the title Medicinal Plant Of The Year 2014. Plantago can be used as tea or sirup, fresh plant sap can also be applied both externally as well as internally. The roots can be chewed to cure gum infections, all other ways of eating the plant will provide you with vitamin C, silica-gel, mucilages and tannin agents.
Fields of application are, among others:
  • vascular lesion
  • bleeding wounds
  • bruises
  • infections
  • coughing
  • bronchitis
  • constipation
  • headaches
  • insect bites
  • gum infections
  • gum bleeding
  • minor burns (e.g. sunburns)
  • haematoma
  • ulceration / festering sore
  • blisters
  • warts
  • corn / clavus


Both travelers and bushcrafters know how irritating mosquito- and insect-bites can be. Usually the itching sensation is the result of an increased concentration of histamines within your cells, trying to fight the toxic chemical components emitted and injected into your skin by the tiny blood suckers. Plantago reduces the itching significantly and helps your skin in regenerating its tissue, increasing the speed in which insect bites heal. In order to take advantage of these effects, simply rub a plantago-leaf in between your fingers and apply the fresh sap to the insect bite.



Even though many bushcrafters still apply plantago to open cuts, scratches or other wounds, I strongly advise not to follow their example! Due to the low growth of many plantago, they usually are inhabited by spores or bacteria living in close proximity to the ground. Such bacteria can cause further infections or even diseases when entering the blood stream. In nine out of ten cases, such infections are caused by chlostridium tetani - a bacterium causing lockjaw (also known as tetanus). Chlostridium tetani - like other chlostridia - is an anaerobe or oxygen-intolerant microorganism, meaning that it is killed by normal atmospheric concentrations of oxygen. If we assume that a survivalist or bushcrafter applies an improvised bandage made from plantago-leaves to an open wound, this bandage will cut off any oxygen-supply to the wounded area. Therefore all aerobic bacteria - that is bacteria requiring air - will devour the remaining oxygen reserves in the wounded area, making it an ideal breeding ground for all other anaerobic organisms such as the chlostridium tetani.
As far as plantago also have an adstringent effect on blood vessels, major infections can be the result of misapplication: Tannin agents may surely help to contract tiny blood vessels and staunch bleedings - yet inhibiting the blood flow also inhibits the very rinsing of germs from the wounded area.
Using plantago for the treatment of open wounds is not recommended and should only come into question if there is no other option. Bruises, insect bites and other conditions usually can be treated without any further concern as far as the immune system of your skin will take care of potentially infective micro-organisms.

Tip: If possible, boil plantago to prevent any eventual contamination with micro-organisms.

Rathwulven BC

Extremely Talkative
Disclaimer: All photos/graphics are either self made or unlicensed (creative commons).